What Travel Writers Say

The Dempster Highway

© By Margo Pfeiff
  Moccasins, teepees and smoked beluga en route, the Dempster is not your typical auto-odyssey.
     It was the first time I'd ever seen a grizzly bear swatting at mosquitoes. A huge shaggy beast, he pawed his face and took swipes at a halo of bugs I could make out even through binoculars. He was making his way across the broad North Klondike River Valley, autumn yellow and orange tundra stretching towards the jagged skyline of the Tombstone Mountains. There was not another person in sight. It struck me as remarkable that less than two hours of driving had brought me here from the Gold Rush razzle-dazzle of Dawson City, where paddle wheelers ply the Yukon River and Diamond Tooth Gertie's gambling hall and the Sourdough Saloon dish out honky-tonk and burlesque.
     Mounds of century-old mine tailings line the road out of Dawson. After 20 minutes, a left takes you up the Dempster Highway, Canada's only public road to cross the Arctic Circle. For 734 km, this gravel lifeline travels through the Yukon Territory to Inuvik on the McKenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories. It follows a traditional Gwich'in hunting and trapping trail across three mountain ranges, two continental divides, five rivers and two time zones.
     Started in 1958, the Dempster didn't reach Inuvik until 1979. Although unpaved, the road is remarkably well maintained. It's a popular road trip not only by car, but also for intrepid RV drivers and cyclists. And, it's a rare chance to mingle with the Inuit who call this land home.
     Folks are few, but friendly. Fort McPherson is one of just three towns en route, a welcoming Gwich'in settlement of log houses, canoes and skidoos, where locals still hunt the porcupine caribou herd and trap beaver. Moccasins sway on clotheslines and gray plumes billow from teepees where fish is smoked.
     As green roadside kilometre signs tick off the distance, you might spy a single bull moose munching on pondweed. A full-grown wolf darting across the road. Purple fire-weed. Lush boreal forests and lily-pad-dotted ponds in the lowlands. Wide open treeless scapes in the High Arctic tundra.
     In summer, Inuvik is the end of the road-a typical no-frills Far North settlement with musk ox and Arctic char on café menus. Galleries showcase Inuit and First Nations art, and the town hosts the Great Northern Art Festival every summer (one of the north's best).
     Then skip 190 km across the McKenzie Delta to Tuktoyaktuk-by plane in summer or ice road in winter. "Tuk" is a traditional Inuvialuit fishing hamlet where the collection plate at the old log Anglican church is made from wolverine fur and the altar cloth from sealskin. The locals store food for their dog teams in a "freezer" carved out of the permafrost 10 m underground.

Dempster Highway  Dempster Highway  Dempster Highway  Gerties, Dawson City 

     On one Dempster odyssey, James and Maureen Pokiak invited me to their home for a traditional Inuvialuit meal. While she laid out strips of smoked beluga whale resembling beef jerky, Maureen explained she originally came north to teach school for a year. "That was 28 years ago," she says, chuckling.
     Pokiak married James, a traditional hunter and trapper, who also leads polar bear hunting trips. Our multi-course meal included smoked whitefish, bannock bread and beluga muktuk-cubes of the white whale's skin and fat. "We like it with HP sauce," the missus noted. We finished with a delicious caribou soup.

Award-winning, Montréal, QC-based freelance writer and photographer Margo Pfeiff's work has appeared in Reader's Digest (books and magazines), GEO, Better Homes and Gardens, Time-Life books, Canadian Geographic, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Montréal Gazette, National Post, The Globe and Mail and Cathay Pacific's Discovery magazine.

Photo credits and article:
Courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission

If you go
The Dempster Highway
as seen on
Dempster Highway: www.yukoninfo.com/dempster
Northwest Territories Travel: www.nwttravel.nt.ca
Arctic Nature Tours: www.arcticnaturetours.com
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dempster_Highway

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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